As the peak festival season in India kicks off, many who are looking to spend their days celebrating in packed crowds should be aware that they might be exposing themselves to several pathogens in the process, say experts. When many people gather in one place for an event or mass gathering, the risk of spread of infections is high.
A number of factors are at play during mass gatherings, including crowding, the health of the attendees, and the location
“If a single infected person shows up to such a mass gathering, he/she can end up infecting multiple people at the same time. The chance of the infection spreading to a greater number of people is high as the exposure to a pathogen is multifold in case of mass gatherings,” says Dr Paritosh Baghel, senior consultant-internal medicine, SL Raheja Hospital, Mahim, Mumbai.
Types of infections you could catch at mass gatherings
Dr Sheela Mathew, former professor and head of the infectious diseases department, Kozhikode Medical College, Kerala says that when one is talking about infections that spread through crowds, one must always consider the diseases or infections that are prevalent during that season and in that community.
“For instance, during the rainy season, the main infection that can spread is seasonal flu. In late winter and early summer, however, it is contagious diseases like chicken pox. In this case, an infected person can spread the infection through droplets, even before symptoms like rashes begin to show. In India, illnesses like tuberculosis can spread at any time,” she says.
Respiratory tract infections
“Crowded events can be a source of infections, especially respiratory tract infections. When you’re in a crowded place with less ventilation, the chance of spreading respiratory infections is very high. The most commonly spread infection is influenza,” says Dr Baghel.
Dr Mathew says seasonal flu usually spreads via droplets in a crowd. If they are bigger particles of droplets, it can usually transmit from person to person. It can usually travel a distance of about 1.5 metres through respiratory secretions- this includes when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks etc.
Ways to prevent spread of infections
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists out the following ways to prevent the spread of flu at mass gatherings:
- Staying home when you are sick
- Keeping your distance
- Covering your coughs and sneezes
- Washing your hands
- Being prepared and informed (getting vaccinated against seasonal flu)
“If proper water sanitation and hygiene is not followed in these event venues, it can lead to gastrointestinal infections – GI infections are very common during mass gatherings,” says Dr Baghel.
A 2019 study funded by the US National Science Foundation and led by researchers from UC Berkeley, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that even small-scale community gatherings are associated with increased transmission of diarrheal diseases.
Dr Baghel says that if there is close proximity between person to person, it could lead to parasitic infections as well.
How to protect yourself from infections
Dr Mathew says “When it comes to people celebrating festivals etc. in a crowd, people are usually not bothered about the spread of infections- this is the common attitude that we have observed. When people are in a celebratory mood, they are not bothered about infections like Covid etc unless there is an outbreak of a particular disease going on and the spread needs to be contained.”
A 2019 systemic study which analyzed the type of risks associated with each type of mass gathering meanwhile found that in religious mass gatherings, infectious diseases were the most common health threat.
Dr Mathew adds “If someone is very anxious about the spread of infections, then they can consider wearing a mask while attending such events.”
Dr Baghel says that whenever you are attending a mass gathering, the first thing to ensure is that you yourself are not sick.
“If you are infected, you are putting many others at risk by attending a mass gathering or event,” he says, adding “Even if it is a simple flu or common cold, do not go out and attend such mass gatherings- respiratory infections which spread through respiratory droplets can spread very easily.”
While attending a public event or gathering, one could be exposed to a number of pathogens—some of the most common infections one could catch include respiratory tract and gastrointestinal infections. General precautions to take include ensuring you are not sick and infecting other people, wearing a mask, covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, washing your hands etc.